It was a moment when a nation held its breath. As Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi and three colleagues were propelled into the skies on Thursday by a SpaceX rocket at more than 28,000kph, the thoughts of everyone in the UAE were with the 41-year-old former IT professional from Al Ain.
Foremost among them would have been Dr Al Neyadi’s family, including his five children. Thanks to new technology, government funding and private sector involvement, space travel is becoming more common and commercial than ever before. But it is not without risk, and Dr Al Neyadi’s loved ones will join the rest of the country in praying for a safe journey for the second Emirati in space.
But what a journey it will be. The 22-hour flight from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to the International Space Station may be arduous for the astronauts, but it is just the first step in a gruelling six-month mission.
After Dr Al Neyadi reached orbit, taking in the panoramic views of space afforded by the state-of-the-art Dragon capsule, his thoughts were clearly with his family back home and the people of the UAE.
"Allow me to say a few words in Arabic first … As-Salamu 'Alaikum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuhu," he said. "Thank God, we made it to space. I would like to thank my mum and dad, and our distinguished leaders."
Dr Al Neyadi’s mission, following on from that of fellow astronaut Maj Hazza Al Mansouri in 2019, cements the UAE’s growing reputation as a scientific power.
Although the excitement of putting the first Emirati into orbit three years ago was something special, developing and deepening the country’s knowledge through repeated space flights and its unmanned missions – such as the Mars Hope probe and the Rashid lunar rover – confirms the Emirates as a serious player in the space sector.
And although Dr Al Neyadi may now be far from home, it is back on Earth where many of the benefits of the UAE’s space exploration are being felt. In late January, a research team from American University of Sharjah made important discoveries about isolation and mental health when they studied astronauts in a collaboration with the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.
Last year, Dubai announced that it would share data from its environmental satellite, DMSat-1, with a global space consortium that monitors the effects of climate change and just last month a pioneering wheat-growing project in Sharjah revealed how its satellite monitoring and sprinkler system was helping to make the desert bloom.
The UAE’s space programme is also equipping a generation of young Emirati men and women with advanced scientific, technical and engineering skills that will benefit the country and the international community for years to come.
For Dr Al Neyadi, months of hard training and preparation are behind him and he will be thinking about the considerable tasks that lie ahead. His scientific work aside, he will also face the physical, mental and emotional rigours of life in a hostile environment, separated from his loved ones.
His experience will be revealing. Observing Ramadan hundreds of kilometres above the Earth in zero gravity, for example, will pose a unique challenge. But the astronaut has already demonstrated the ability to handle adversity with a light touch, as his quip following Monday’s aborted launch that he “didn’t intend to come home this soon” revealed.
But come home he will, and it will be to a country that regards space as a common good and a place where all nations, whether advanced of developing, can contribute. Six months may be a long time in space for one man, but for the UAE, it is just one more step in a long journey.